american politics

Politicians Are People, Too

Mark Hand

Ph.D. Student

Editor’s Note: It’s officially politics season, whether we like it or not. The debates for national office have begun and while some of us never take our eyes off the political world – please save me! – it’s going to be nearly impossible to do so for the next 16 (!!) months. So let’s make the most of it.

Putting aside, for this website (we are not political), whether or not the system is as it “should” be, American politics is big business. There are tons of organizations, employees, stakeholders, finances and consequences at stake. Politics impacts private sector business, too, as well as all the humans who are owners, employees, customers and compliance officers (I’m so sorry).  So what does behavioral science tell us about the business of, and businesses impacted by, politics? We’re glad you asked. Vote Quimby!


By any measure, lobbying politicians is big business. Here is just one of those measures: According to data from the Texas Ethics Commission, lobbyists in Texas signed contracts worth up to $396 million in 2019. Add that to the $317 million raised in state-level campaigns in the last election, and that works out to over $3 million spent on each of Texas's 181 legislators, and almost 2% of the total state budget. And that’s just one U.S. state with a legislature that meets for only five months every two years.

Given the dollars at stake, one would expect all those lobbying and campaign dollars to generate some return on investment. Truth is, heavily funded, well-armed business interests are often unable to push their priorities through or stop bills harmful to their interests. (Editor’s note: Withholding judgment on whether an ineffective lobbying industry is actually a “good” thing – big picture – to explore the science here. i.e. biting my tongue!)


Many of the folks trying to influence legislators are still operating as if policymakers were rational actors ... It isn't how humans operate.

I suspect one of the primary drivers behind this gap in spending and outcomes is that many executives, lobbyists and even legislators themselves suffer from a sort of Econ 101 disease. Having been trained in the basics of micro-economics in college, many of the folks trying to influence legislators are still operating as if policymakers were rational actors, appropriately weighing all the information and incentives at hand, and making the decision that would benefit them the most, by balancing their donors, colleagues, voters and other stakeholders. There is a problem with that view: It isn't how humans operate.

Since most of those executives and lobbyists crammed for their last Econ exam, researchers have learned that humans don't often make rational, considered decisions. Instead, we use shortcuts that have been evolutionarily cobbled together to help us survive, shortcuts that do not always serve us well in the modern world. And because policymakers are human, those shortcuts do not always serve those policymakers well, either. If you want to influence your local legislator, you – and your lobbyist – need to understand how they operate. 

If you want to influence your local legislator, you – and your lobbyist – need to understand how they operate. 

For just a paragraph, imagine you are a state Senator. You wake up at 5 a.m. to tape a radio interview, have three fundraising meetings over coffee, check in with your office staff, have a few more fundraising meetings, get briefed on a committee hearing, and head to the hearing at 3. As you walk to the hearing room, you encounter the tail end of a long line of people. As you walk past them, a few smile at you – most glower. Your stomach sinks as you realize all of these people are here to testify to your committee – it is going to be a much longer night than you had planned. Given that you are expected by leadership to get this bill out of committee by next week with two more votes than you have right now, you will need to get more clever than you feel right now. Then you realize you will need to find something to eat, because you were too busy fundraising at lunch to shovel in enough food to make up for having missed breakfast (you should’ve turned one of those coffees into breakfast). (Editor’s note: The politicians I’ve worked with almost universally complain about how much time is consumed by fundraising. An evil necessary evil [double-evil intended]. I will continue to bite my tongue, but the system isn’t … good.)

Politicians are subject to the same biological and cognitive limitations as the rest of us. And while researchers have done quite a bit of work on how our cognitive biases might affect us as voters and employees and consumers, there has been little attention given to how those biases might affect the decision-making of our political leaders. Inspired by the work of the behavioral science consulting firm ideas42, here’s a look at how some common cognitive biases play into political campaigns and policymaking.


Politicians are subject to the same biological and cognitive limitations as the rest of us.

Choice Overload

Too many choices don’t make us happier – they just stress us out. See PeopleScience’s nugget on Choice Overload. Policymakers have to make constant decisions about which problems get their limited focus,energy and attention. Then, depending on how those problems are framed, there is a range of solutions that might be applied. Then there are a number of stakeholders to consider, including party leadership, current constituents, future constituents, committee colleagues, donors, family and so on. Reducing choice overload requires setting up useful constraints: In policymakers’ case, that often means voicing the interests of one stakeholder group, such as your constituents, to justify moving focus away from an issue your party leadership wants you to focus on.

Cognitive Depletion and Decision Fatigue

Legislators aren’t superhuman. They have to take mental breaks in addition to physical breaks. This fact is often used as a weapon: Filibustering bills is in part an effort to wear down political opponents both mentally and physically. But it can be used constructively, too, by designing legislators’ days and sessions for maximum decision-making capacity, by subordinating less important procedural decisions to staff, or by eliminating less important decisions entirely. All this applies in a campaign context, as well: Constant decision-making by campaign staff may mean suboptimal decisions.

Hassle Factors

What is the process by which someone chooses to run for office? What minor barriers exist, especially for underrepresented groups? What are the micro-processes by which policymakers get and process information, or to spending time with colleagues? Newt Gingrich made a special effort in the 1990s to get Republican congressional leaders to live primarily in their districts; that made it much less likely that Republican and Democratic congressional leaders would get to know each other given the extra hassle required to meet and spend time with someone from the other party.


Ideas42 explains that, “We all have multiple identities – for instance, someone can be a mother, a lawyer, a daughter and a gardener – and each identity may carry different goals and values. Our perceptions, choices, and actions are often made in accordance with the identity (and its associated values) that is most salient to us in our moment of choice.”

Might legislators also behave differently depending on how they are identity-primed? When and under what conditions do they view themselves as Senate Members versus party members? As party members versus representatives of their entire constituencies, regardless of party? And might priming minority identities in recruiting potential candidates backfire?

Limited Attention

One of the more active areas of literature in public policy scholarship is the role of attention. We don’t have enough of it, and there is an ever-increasing amount of information to process. Levels of media and committee attention can in part predict the passage of bills, for example.

Some scholars believe that we have had things backwards: Rather than a market for information, the policy environment is actually a market for individuals’ attention. Policymakers may miss important information because of a lack of attention, and this might be heightened by others’ active efforts to distract them from one issue and/or keep their focus on another. The President’s Daily Brief is one example of how the CIA has worked to make sure a president doesn’t miss an important issue because of over-focus on another.


Policymakers may miss important information because of a lack of attention, and this might be heightened by others’ active efforts to distract them from one issue and/or keep their focus on another.

Loss Aversion

We know loss aversion: Humans over-value what we already possess, causing us to miss opportunities that demand giving something up. Political candidates hesitate to abandon a previously winning electoral coalition. They overweight the importance of consistency and miss the chance to take new positions on an issue. They hesitate to fire poorly performing or scandal-ridden staff members. They are more afraid of losing their current job than excited about winning another one. And they may hold on too tightly to donors, when they could get value from sharing those donors with like-minded campaigns. From a policy perspective, programs that are working poorly might be continued because the costs of dropping them are more salient than the benefits and because new policy directions are viewed as riskier than they are. Victory in getting a policy through one chamber might make a policymaker hesitant to modify it so as to get it passed in another.

Making Policy Work 

There is a tremendous amount of work left to be done here – the biases covered above are only half of the biases listed by Ideas42, just one of the many firms that apply behavioral science to policymaking. But from this list, we can already we can get a sense of how behavioral science might enhance the work of lobbyists:

  • Framing options can reduce choice overload.
  • Attention to decision fatigue can help determine when to approach legislators.
  • Identifying and reducing the hassle factors that legislators face in, for example, sifting through huge amounts of information might help outside groups highlight information important to them and reduce the impact of limited attention, and
  • Extra attention to potential losses to legislators' constituencies, rather than benefits, might help de-risk a proposition in a legislator's eyes. 

Do you, your organization or your industry spend time and money supporting or lobbying political candidates? Do you hire lobbyists or political consultants? Ask them how they use behavioral science in their work. If you apply what we know about human decision making to the humans making important policy decisions, you might find yourself getting better policy bang for your lobbying buck. 


A version of this article was previously posted on Medium

Mark Hand

Ph.D. Student


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